NEAL CONAN, HOST:
In the run-up to Election Day, newspaper readers usually expect to see endorsements on the editorial page, but that tradition's come into question. Last month, the Los Angeles Times received a flurry of criticism following its endorsement of President Obama, and the editorial board responded with a defense of the practice. On the other hand, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is among the papers that's decided to stop endorsing political candidates altogether. We want to hear from you: Should newspapers make political endorsements?
Gives us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. David Haynes is editorial page editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and he joins us from a studio at member station WUWM in Milwaukee. Good of you to be with us today.
DAVID HAYNES: Thanks, Neal. Glad to be here.
CONAN: And Robert Greene, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times joins us from a studio there in L.A. Nice to have you with us.
ROBERT GREENE: Thank you, Neal. Pleased to be here.
CONAN: And, David Haynes, let's start with you. Why did your paper decide to get out of the endorsement game?
HAYNES: Well, you know, first, Neal, it really boils down to this notion of independence. We work very hard each day to provide a balance of views on our pages and on our website increasingly and mobile devices as well. And we work hard to be open-minded and approach issues that we're going to editorialize on independently. We pull good ideas from both major schools of political thought, and we're pragmatic. We back ideas we think will work. Ideology is really immaterial.
So then, we do all that for 364 days of the year and turn around and choose sides in a bitter partisan election? I think that tends to undermine this whole idea of independence, and it really undermines this idea of being an honest broker of opinion. Again, that forum, that's our real mission. The editorial is a part of that.
CONAN: Some of your readers will remember - speaking of bitter partisan divisions, your paper did endorse Governor Walker in the Wisconsin recall election this past summer.
HAYNES: We did. And I think if we had to do it over, that's one of those rare exceptions when we would probably chuck this new policy and say we should do an endorsement. The reason for that is that we felt that the recall process itself was flawed. And it wasn't that we necessarily supported the governor's policies. In many cases, we did not. But we felt that the recall was a populist overreaction.
CONAN: And let me then turn to you, Robert Greene. As - after your paper got all of those complaints about the editorial endorsing Barack Obama, what was your defense of the practice?
GREENE: Well, complaints are nothing new. We get complaint all the time because we express opinion and - especially at election season. Opinion is part of the process, but campaigns and elections are very emotional-laden kind of thing. You know, we have been endorsing in newspapers in the newspaper industry in the United States for centuries. At The Los Angeles Times, though, we've sort of gone the other way. We stopped endorsing in presidential campaigns, oh, about 35 years ago, after the 1972 race for many of the same reasons that some newspapers today are saying that we shouldn't do it.
And then in 2008, we took stock and said, oh, we're part of a conversation with our readers. We weigh in all the time during the year on what the president is doing, what the alternative theories are about governing. We ought to work through that with our readers and tell them where we come out.
CONAN: So if you're going to express an opinion about health care or the auto bailout or for that matter, Syria, you ought to have an opinion about who might be the best president too?
GREENE: That's our thinking. And we call upon our voters to make a decision at the end. And so we think it's only fair that we be asked to walk through the same process and tell them what our decision would be if we were voting.
CONAN: David Haynes, do you sometimes feel, without an endorsement, you're leaving your readers on their own?
HAYNES: You know, I don't think so. I think, in fact, if the idea is to engage readers on the most important issues, then we've accomplished that with the approach we've taken this year. We've published a series of six editorials on the presidential race focusing on six broad issues of importance. And one of the issues with doing endorsements is, there are a lot more than six issues, right? There's dozens. And it depends on what really matters to you.
We wrote two other issues-centric sort of editorials on the U.S. Senate race. We've got a pretty hot race here for the U.S. Senate, as you probably have heard.
So we've chosen to engage in that matter and leave the decision about who to vote for up to readers. We think they need to be informed. We think reading our arguments on the issues can help that. We think it's up to them.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Should newspapers and other news organizations express endorsements of political candidates? Let's start with Dan. And Dan's on the line with us from Beloit in Wisconsin.
DAN: Afternoon, gentlemen.
DAN: I believe that, yes, any news organization, unless they absolutely dictate as to what - that they are left-leaning or right-leaning, Democrats, Republicans, whatever you want to call it, unless that, you know, that's the demographic they sell to, they should keep out of the opinion of who they endorse. I don't think it's the job of a news organization to state that. And in my opinion, as soon as you state, let's say you endorse Barack Obama, in my mind you're immediately a left-leaning organization and anything you say pretty much at that point has a left-leaning stance to it. And why wouldn't it, if that's who you endorse?
CONAN: So you don't think there's any way there could be separation between the editorial page and the news page?
DAN: I don't believe so, because once you have an opinion or once you know that that organization has that opinion or that stance, even if someone in there does have a different opinion, now their employer has a completely different opinion, it influences them. And I don't think, you know, I don't think that really - and I don't think that's what a news organization is there for. They're there to report the news, and flat line it right there.
CONAN: Beloit is not that far from Milwaukee. Do you happen to read the Journal Sentinel?
DAN: I do not. No. I'm not a big newspaper reader, to be honest. I read some. But no, I don't. I really, time is - I'm a truck driver so time is really not on my side either.
HAYNES: You know, I think we have a great deal right now we could give him, if he'd like to give us a call.
CONAN: Either three days a week, weekends. They've got all kinds of packages.
HAYNES: We'll give him anything.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Dan.
DAN: Thank you.
CONAN: And let me ask you that - just following up there, David Haynes of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, do you see that there is a strict division between the editorial page and the front page?
HAYNES: Oh, absolutely there is. And we try very hard to keep that wall between the two of us. In fact, in our newsroom - and Robert's probably at the same way - we're in a completely different room. We affectionately call it the cave. And you know, there is a division, but it is frequently misunderstood by readers.
And the other thing I have found with endorsements over the years, and I've been on the board here seven years and written a number of them myself, is that what readers tend to remember is the last person you endorsed. We've endorsed Russ Feingold in the past, a very liberal senator. We've endorsed our governor, a very conservative Republican. And they tend - that tends to color everything else that they think about what you do.
And again, it gets backs to what I was saying before about that idea of being an honest broker of opinion. That's my job, I think. The forum is what's really most important. The editorials are part of that. And I think I really need to guard that credibility.
CONAN: Robert Greene.
GREENE: Well, I think expressing your opinion is in some way an expression or a demonstration of transparency. The idea that on the editorial page is that after writing editorials about particular issues as they arrive and about candidates as they arise, that you don't also come to a conclusion about if you were going to vote which one you would vote for. I think it's a little disingenuous to say that you haven't reached that opinion. And if you've reached such an opinion, just in the interests of transparency, I think it's a good idea to express it and then to put it in front of the readers and see if they believe that you have justified that opinion properly.
CONAN: Here's an email from Blake in San Antonio: The newspaper really needs to provide endorsements. The presidential race is not the question. I don't think an endorsement at the top of the ticket will have much effect. The question is the large number of down-ballot races. It would take a full-time effort to have any informed opinion on the vast majority of those races. The editorial board's assessment of those candidates is crucial to be able to cast an informed ballot.
And David Haynes, I like to think myself as informed. And I know all the national issues, I think. I know most of the statewide issues. County Question B. I'm not so sure on County Question B.
HAYNES: Right, right. It's a - I think it's a great point, although I would argue that endorsements aren't the best vehicle for that. Too often - and you know, I'm not throwing stones here to anybody. But too often I read endorsement editorials, either in our paper or others, and it comes off to me like just trust us. It's very hard, I think, in 500 and maybe even 1,000 words to get all the aspects of a candidate, multiple candidates, all of their positions, how they've done their jobs, into that editorial.
And in fact there are a number of issues in any race, and it depends as a voter as to which ones you're going to focus on. Now, in our five that we took on in the presidential race, none of them are social issues. But if you care a lot about gay marriage or about abortion, you're going to vote differently and you won't - you will not have found that, you know, if we'd used that for an endorsement editorial, for that endorsement editorial to be very useful.
CONAN: And getting back to you, Robert Greene, do you find sometimes the analysis of those - well, California, known for a large number of ballot questions, getting down to - towards the bottom of that ballot, they get short shrift?
GREENE: They don't on our page. We try really hard to focus on those. I mean, it's true. We have 11 statewide ballot measures in California, and just to read them all, you have about a pound of materials to go through, and it's an awful lot to ask voters. And so we go through them, hopefully, lockstep with the voters. But just, quite honestly, we know that most aren't going to make their way through, and you need to hear a discussion, a conversation both in print and online, and more and more audio and video, a discussion about what these measures are about and what they would do.
And I agree with the point that if what we end up with is just a statement, you should vote for this candidate or that candidate, trust us, or you should vote this way on that ballot measure or that way, just trust us, then we're failing. Even if we have just a 400-word editorial or even a thousand-word endorsement to explain why you should vote on a particular measure, that's not enough. An endorsement really is more than vote this way or that way. It's a conversation that plays out over the - online and in the news pages over a period of about a month leading up to the election.
HAYNES: And I would say just this, Neal and Robert: I really agree. We have to figure out as newspapers, as news organizations, how to provide more information for those down-ticket races. I've got a call in to the League of Women Voters in Wisconsin; we're going to get together after the election and see if there's a way we can partner. Both of our organizations in the past did voters guides that looked at a variety of races that went right down to, you know, city clerk. And we've gotten away from that because of, you know, staffing issues and so forth, both our organizations. And I think we need to get back to it somehow.
CONAN: That's David Haynes, the editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Also with us, Robert Greene, editorial writer with the Los Angeles Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Laura is on the line with us from Des Moines.
LAURA: Oh, hi. Thanks for taking my call. Yeah, I'm from Des Moines, and the Des Moines Register just last - just yesterday, or last weekend, endorsed Obama and...
CONAN: Excuse me. I think they endorsed Mr. Romney.
LAURA: I mean I'm sorry, Mr. Romney. Thank you. Sorry. I always get a little nervous when I have to talk to you.
CONAN: Oh, that's all right.
LAURA: And I think it was a surprise to a lot of people. I am a liberal, so I'll divulge that, and I was disappointed. But I think people were surprised because the editorials in the past didn't kind of match up with that as far as, you know, climate change issues and reproductive issues. So it seemed kind of weird, and then it turns out that the normal editorial group didn't actually write that endorsement. And so it just - and I don't know if the Register even holds the amount of prestige that it has in the past. So...
CONAN: I'm not sure editorials as such are as influential as they used to be. But does that make you think twice about the quality of the newspaper, Laura?
LAURA: Well, yes, and I think that has - that's not the first time I've felt that way. I do think they did a good job kind of getting the issues out there for people who were wanting to learn about the different positions of both the candidates, and I think that was good. I just think it's interesting because they haven't endorsed a Republican president since Nixon. So maybe it's actually a reverse thing. It will actually be good for Obama.
LAURA: I don't know.
CONAN: OK. Well, we'll have to see about that. I'm not so sure about that. There is a, David Haynes, a question - we've seen this debated in the Citizens United decision in the Supreme Court, that corporations - and newspapers are, of course, corporations, among other things - have the right to express their political opinions. And of course the editorial endorsement is one big way to do that.
HAYNES: Well, for sure. But I do think that we can do a better job by sticking to issues and exploring those issues in some depth. You know, with an issue, let's say voter ID, which we have opposed over and over again in Wisconsin, that's an issue, as you write about it more often, you become more knowledgeable about it. You do more reporting. You talk to more people. You become more authoritative. I think in an era of diminishing resources for newsrooms, we all have to make decisions about where to put our priorities. I'd put it on sticking with issues, and I would not put it on doing endorsements.
CONAN: Robert Greene, after the Los Angeles Times changed its mind and started endorsing again back in 2008, any chance that they could go back to the previous policy?
GREENE: I supposed we always could. We're always assessing what's in the best interests of our readers and what makes sense. I certainly agree that it's best to focus on the issues. I guess where we differ is that when we've walked through the various issues, generally speaking for candidates who are on the ballot, we like to put those together and walk our readers through where we come out. But certainly for president, I don't know that we're going to change anybody's mind. Newspapers are perhaps not the power brokers that they once were, but they have a slightly different role. And I still think it's an important role in endorsing.
CONAN: One of the rare things I've never done in the news business is write an editorial. Is it fun to write an endorsement?
GREENE: It's a lot of fun. I mean you have to alternately indulge your ego and then hold back a little bit. So there you are writing, telling the world how you think they should vote. And then you have to remind yourself, you know, the world doesn't necessarily hang on your every word. So you have to go back and make sure that you're being as reasoned and as meticulous and backing up your decision as much as possible. But that's actually most of the fun.
CONAN: Robert Greene, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks very much for being with us today.
GREENE: Thank you.
CONAN: David Haynes, editorial page editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, appreciate your time.
HAYNES: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And David Haynes joined us from member station WUWM in Milwaukee. Tomorrow, we'll be talking about, well, after all the attacks in this election, who'd want to run for office anyway? Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.